Beloved outdoor library goes up in flames

The spread of books may be – at least temporarily – drastically reduced, but that clearly isn’t going to stop the faithful dropping by

The Hamoshava Reading Station, post-blaze (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Hamoshava Reading Station, post-blaze
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Where they burn books” – thus opens a Facebook post uploaded in the early hours of Sunday morning by Canadian-born Dan Illouz, a Hitorerut Party city councilman. If that sounds more than a little dramatic, the sight that met me on Monday morning when I went down to Harakevet Street, which makes up part of Mesila Park, was pretty disturbing.
It appears that sometime on Friday night one of the two bus shelters that comprise the Hamoshava Reading Station caught fire. All the books were destroyed and the outdoor repository itself is currently a mangled mass of cinders, molten metal and blistered fabric, contained within the skeletal outlines of the structure. It did not make for a pretty spectacle.
It was not hard, of course, to get Illouz’s drift. The aforementioned quote comes from a worryingly prescient observation by Jewish-born German writer Heinrich Heine in the first half of the 19th century. It was made in response to witnessing nationalistic students demonstrating their “patriotism” by tossing “un-German” books into huge bonfires.
Fast-forward around 100 years to May 1933 and more tomes were summarily cast into the flames following the German Student Association’s call for a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit.” We all know what soon ensued.
I noted the Heine reference. “Yes, it is chilling,” Illouz concurs. “We don’t, at this stage, know whether the fire was caused by an act of arson or an electrical fault. The police are still looking into that, although there are signs that it was lit intentionally. Let’s hope it wasn’t.” Meanwhile, sources at the Ginot Ha’ir local council and at Safra Square believe it was the act of disconnected at-risk youth, who are suffering from a lack of framework due to the corona-induced reduction in social workers.
Illouz has a particular affection for the al-fresco free lending library, and the area as a whole.
“I actually live around the corner. The place with the books and the entire park bring the community together. There is a great spirit there.”
The collateral for that view is rapidly taking on corporeal form.
“People have said they will bring new books to replenish the reading station, and there are all sorts of people who are good with their hands and can help to repair and reconstruct the place,” says Moshe Aharon. I bumped into the 30-something father of two when I biked over there to get a sense of what the open-air facility means to the locals, and how they feel about the destruction.
“I come by here quite often,” he notes, keeping his luxuriantly coated and eminently amiable dog Baloo in check while his kindergarten-aged daughter pulled a French language book off one of the shelves of the remaining, untouched book bus shelter. I joked that the young miss was getting a head start on her French studies.
“Actually, her mother is French,” Aharon laughed. The toddler clearly has a well-developed sixth sense.
ON MY visits to the Reading Station over the years – I lived in Baka for five years, followed by a similar term over on Hatayassim Street, not a million miles away – I noted that, in general, the currently dysfunctional bus shelter largely contained books in Hebrew, while the one still standing offered a broader lingual stretch.
While I was down there, all sorts of people sauntered over to consider the diminished literary pickings still to be had. There were several Americans, a Frenchman and later a French woman, and even the odd Sabra. One of the latter, a senior citizen by the name of Yitzhak, said he came by almost every day, although he didn’t always leave with something to read. He was visibly upset by the scene he saw on his arrival.
“Who did this?” he asked with some degree of angst. “I have been coming here since the day they opened this place. I come here to check out the books. I sometimes take something.” Sounds like, for Yitzhak, it is more about the vibe of the location than the tomes on offer.
That was a recurring theme among the people I met there. Socializing seemed to be an important factor in the Hamoshava Reading Station dynamics.
“I meet people here I don’t meet anywhere else,” Yitzhak laughs, though his mood lifted only momentarily. “Who could have done a thing like this?” he exclaims again, surveying the fire damage. “Who could burn books? It’s vandalism. It’s not good. It’s heartbreaking. I’ll carry on coming here regardless.”
Yaakov, a French-born golden-ager, made aliyah eight years ago and has been a regular down at the open-air lending library for most of that time.
“I’ve been coming here for five years,” he told me in a colorful mixture of French with a smattering of English and Hebrew thrown in. It was all I could do to dredge up some of my high school-acquired French to keep up.
“This is a very important place, for me and other people. I hope they can get it repaired quickly.”
Not everyone goes there to get themselves a good read. Some are more interested in the artifact side of the stock on show.
“This is the best outside library in Jerusalem,” noted Judith Margolis as she arrived, expressing horror at the woeful state of the decimated shelter. “Do you know what happened here?” she asked me. All I could do was repeat the handful of facts known to date, spiced up with a little conjecture. “I’m in shock,” she added.
In fact, Margolis, a 76-year-old veteran olah from the States, has been making frequent forays to Harakevet Street in search of aesthetic items she can incorporate in her own creative pursuit.
“I am a writer and an artist,” she proffers. “I actually make books.”
Margolis believes the Reading Station is an indispensable part not only of the fabric of Jerusalem culture and society, but much further afield too.
“I feel the free book kiosk, it’s almost the thing that is saving the world right now,” she declares. “There’s so much crap going on now. The fact that you can go out of the door and pull a book and give a book at places like this – that holds meaning for everybody. You know, people are formed by books. You are what you read, kind of. It has kept people going, especially this last year, or last few years. It makes all the difference in the world.”
The social benefits to be had there also draw Margolis in.
“I’m an insomniac so I come here in the middle of the night, and there’s always someone here looking at the books. It’s a good place. It’s a good energy thing.”
While we chatted, people of all ages and, presumably, walks of life milled around, peeking at the titles and pulling some novel or other out of the shelves. The spread of books may be – at least temporarily – drastically reduced, but that clearly isn’t going to stop the faithful dropping by, exchanging a word or two with fellow bibliophiles, or maybe just a smile or a knowing glance.
“I come here all the time,” said Hamutal, at 11 by far the youngest visitor I encountered. “My mother and I come over, mostly to drop books off, but I take some home too. I live in the area and my friend lives nearby. It’s great just to hang out here.”
In the interim, Illouz is not only intent on helping to get the library back to its former intact working order, he’d like to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“This could have been avoided, you know. I’ve been on to this for a few months. I had a lot of residents who told me the security situation, right now, in the Hamesilah Park is not good. There are people who are afraid to walk there alone.” The city council member said he asked for surveillance cameras and for security to patrol the area a few months ago but, thus far, nothing has happened. Apparently there is now more urgent talk of, at least, cameras being installed and in fairness, it should be noted that the municipality is preparing to oversee the repair of the burnt-out shelter.
The Hamoshava Reading Station is clearly precious to many, for reading and community-spirited ends. Let’s hope it is – pardon the pun – fully back on track before long.